Looking for Hemingway in all the wrong places

I am on a quest to find a beautiful copy of The Sun Also Rises. I'm not out here looking for a shitty copy.

Here are books I do not want:

They are ugly.

They are ugly.

As my search has drawn on I've gotten increasingly irrational about the copy of Sun that I'm going to buy. I can't just buy one online. I'm going to find one, I'm going to find one in a used bookstore, and I'm going to find it because Hemingway's ghost led me there.

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I went on an odyssey of sorts to the East Village to scour used bookstores for my perfect copy of Sun which exists out there and I will find it. Yesterday ... was not that day.

But I did find some books that want to share with y'all.

The Strand - 828 Broadway

The Strand is an enormous bookstore, and the best and worst part about it is that there are racks of $1-5 books that line the block outside. I didn't have time to go through these yesterday, and also it would have taken five hours, but it kills me to think that my Sun might have been there. Anyway, I went straight inside to the Hemingways and was waylaid by something even better: An LGBTQIA book display on the main floor.

And that's where I found Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes.


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Nightwood

Barnes was a writer and an artist active during the 1920s in New York and Paris. She had a lot of bad relationships with men and then swore off men, and then had a lot of bad relationships with women and swore off love altogether. She was known for, according to Andrea Barnet, "reams of sardonic poetry, dreamlike plays, short stories, and several edgy novels with lesbian themes."

Nightwood is one of those novels. It definitely sounds like it's going to be one of those classic "it's the 1920s so this lesbian is gonna fuck up her whole dang life" kind of stories, but also that was kind of like, Djuna Barnes' whole deal? Write what you know.

I'm very excited to get into this one, and look how beautiful the cover is. If some people (Ernest Hemingway) could manage to have covers that beautiful, then I would own a copy of The Sun Also Rises by now.

The Splendid Drunken Twenties - Selections from the Daybooks 1922-1930

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I found this book when I went to the basement of The Strand, looking for Leslie Blume's Everybody Behaves Badly, a biography of Hemingway's early years. I found a different biography with that picture of Hemingway pointing a gun at the camera on the cover and I'm not about that life, but while I was wandering forlornly in the stacks I stumbled upon The Splendid Drunken Twenties.

Carl Van Vechten was a writer and photographer who wrote another book that is extremely fucking racist but that book is not this book, in that this book I would actually take on the subway, and have in my home. Van Vechten ran in the same circles as Djuna Barnes and was also That White Dude that was obsessed with Harlem and the black artists of the time (they didn't need his patronage at all). Van Vechten noted down his daily activities in his daybooks, which are printed here. It's full of stuff like "had lunch with George Gershwin" and "went to a party at A'lelia Walker's" and it's all the mundane daily shit that is perfect research fodder.

Alabaster Bookshop - 122 4th Avenue

This place is quite literally around the corner from The Strand, going towards Union Square, and I like it because well ... it's a tiny used bookstore. In one of the most hopping parts of New York. Next to New York's most famous and biggest used bookstore. It's the kind of perfect used bookstore that is packed up to the ceilings, with books tumbling all over the floor.

All Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913 - 1930

This book is not an in-depth biography by any means, but rather a thrilling, breezy account of the lives of some of the amazing women of the time. It covers five of the women in their own chapters, with another chapter devoted to salons. But it opens with a "Cast of Characters" providing paragraph-long biographs of some twenty notable women, and I want to read books about every single one of them.

I actually found this book at Alabaster in September and checked it out at the NYPL in ebook form. I really enjoyed it, but I kept not finishing it before my hold was up so I gave in and decided to go back and buy it. This I explained in a sort of stammer to the kind and patient bookseller who will hopefully not remember me.

I love this book as a jumping-off point, and as a fucking inspirational text. It does a few things really well. The cast of characters got me pumped and made me want to go out and find someone who thinks women never did anything in history and then bash them over the head with this book. It's a litany of baller women who left their homes, made their own way in life, wrote revolutionary prose and poetry, made art, and were celebrated for it. Many, many of them were queer.

The book also includes wonderful tidbits about contemporary life that are so useful — things like what bars people hung out at. These are the kinds of details you can only get from reading biographies or contemporary writing, and I love it.

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Where the book falls short: the author is white, and though there are chapters about the black women who were killing it at the time, I haven't read them yet because they're ... in the back of the book. The introduction mentions in a sanitized way that these black women artists were fighting both racism and sexism, and acknowledges that blues and jazz were the product of a "much-neglected" black America. But I would argue that "neglected" is nowhere near strong enough a word to describe the black America that was living under segregation, had seen the end of government-sanctioned slavery a mere fifty-odd years before, and was thriving in the decade that saw a major resurgence of the freaking KKK.

On one level I understand, because the whole tone of the book is about feeling very good about the accomplishments that women made. But it would be a disservice to women like Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter if we don't acknowledge the whole, awful truth of the odds that were against them. Both were lesbians, by the way.

I think All Night Party does tend to revel in the glamor of the '20s, and avoid some of its ugliness. That's mostly okay with me (mostly, see above) as long as we remember that ugliness on our own. Fredrick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday did that in '31 and it's a great read.

East Village Books and Records - 99 St. Mark's Pl.

Okay, I did not actually buy any books here because I felt fragile after accidentally spending so much money elsewhere — BUT. I had never been this bookstore before and I'll definitely go again. It's another hole in the wall, absolutely lined with books.

They also had shelves upon shelves of discount books in front and in a sort of shed in the back. I came so close to finding what I wanted here, y'all. But it just wasn't my day.

If anyone has other used bookstore recommendations please throw them my way! They're not easy to find, and apparently neither is a good-looking copy of The Sun Also Rises.

My bad teen novels made me a better writer

It's the screaming time again, when I sequester myself for a month and desperately make bad words come out of my hands.

This National Novel Writing Month I'm trying something new which I'm calling "living like a Spartan" or perhaps "like an adult with a good sense of time management."

My rules are to be in bed by 11:30 (if I want to read, or need to write more to hit my goal I can do it from bed, but no dicking around online or playing games or watching TV allowed), and up before 7:00 to get a thousand words in before work.

It's only day 4 but so far, so good.

I've been doing NaNo since I was in high school and for a long time I thought I had gotten nothing out of it but fun times with friends who write. Neither of my published books were written during NaNo. And the books I did write with the month-long constraint... woof.

But as I tried to convince everyone I knew to join me on the NaNo journey this year, I realized that NaNo fundamentally changed how I approach writing, and more than anything, why I think it's a great idea to start young.

I've written a lot of bad books

The first time I did a writing month was actually JuNoWriMo, when I was about sixteen years old. Back then I was, against all odds, really fucking good at writing 50K in a month and let's be real, it was because it was a bad 50K. I wrote garbage that year. I wrote garbage for NaNo when I was 17. I wrote garbage with my friends, and I wrote slightly less-garbagey but still pretty garbage in sophomore year of college.

But all those reams of garbage that I wrote made me think of writing as tangible work, rather than a mystical art.

Doing NaNo changed my relationship towards word counts, and towards completing projects. And it taught me my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. And I started doing it when I was so dang young that I tricked myself into learning life lessons, what the hell.

Word counts aren't scary

I've failed NaNo more times than I've won. But those early NaNos, when I was so young and foolish and cavalier about words that I actually won fixed some things in my brain.

50,000 words became not a scary number. When submission calls I was looking at wanted books of 50,000 or more, I knew I could hit that number.

Even though I would never in my life let any of my early NaNo projects be seen by living human eyes, it was a weight off to know that the sheer volume of words was possible. That I had done it, and could do it again.

I knew I was bad at endings

Here's the other thing about my early NaNo projects: I finished 50K, but I never finished a book.

I was terrible at plot arcs; I would imagine most sixteen-year-olds writing their first book are. I'd estimate that I was around 2/3 of the way through the plot each time I got to 50K, but like, imagine the plot arc is less of a parabola and more of a pancake. 

It's because I was bad at plotting, and definitely bad at villains (these stories tended to have Villains), and definitely because I was bad at endings.

I'm really fucking bad at endings.

And again, it's good to know that. Just like I knew I could make 50,000 words appear, I knew that none of those words would be a decent ending.

In a better world where I'm a better person, this means I know to take extra time during the planning process to iron out an ending and make sure my conflicts are actually leading somewhere.

I knew what I had done.

I knew what I had done.

In practice it meant that when I turned in the manuscript for Sparkwood and Amanda sent back edits calling me a villain and pointing her accusing finger at me from across the country, I was ... unsurprised.

But I wasn't crushed or disappointed, because years of doing NaNo had trained me to be extremely cognizant of my weaknesses, but also not to let them stop me from writing.

I had written a book before

Writing a book is really damn hard. You work long and lonely hours at it and you agonize over little things, and you make strange horrible mistakes that will have you looking back and screaming "WHO WROTE THIS?"

I know this... on a certain level. 

And on another level I swoop into novel-writing going "uh, of COURSE I can write a novel" because my idiot teen self wrote like three of them and if she can do it, anyone can.

Again I have stress for the fiftieth time these books were not good. I think people around me at the time wondered why I bothered, because it was obvious that I wasn't putting much care into what I was writing. But the fact that I could do this when I was a useless teenager, I should be able to do it now has been a backbone for me. Every time finishing a story feels impossible, the horrible evidence of my past writing crimes is there going "OH NO, IT'S POSSIBLE."

Even though it's much harder to write now, I came into adult writing knowing the elation of finishing a book. Knowing that I could cope with the sheer number of words needed. Knowing where I was going to half-ass it, and failing to stop myself from half-assing, accepting that it was going to happen and that I would be able to deal with the consequences of my half-assery.

These aren't craft skills, but they're work skills. Craft takes time to hone, but so does the ability to keep gnawing through the bad to get to the good. And that's something I learned without realizing I was learning, when I was just writing bad books for fun.

Spooky Sparkwood read-aloud

You can hear me read a spooky excerpt of Sparkwood over at Binge on Books!

They're doing a wonderful Halloween series where authors read aloud their creepiest scenes. There have been some really great ones, and I recommend checking out the rest of the series. The fun will go on 'till the end of October.

Speaking of October, I've somehow found myself watching The Exorcist, which Fox has against all odds turned into a good TV show. I'm working hard at the next book and gearing up for National Novel Writing Month, too.

Hopefully soon I'll be able to say exciting things about A Spell For Luck but until then ... make sure you sign up for my newsletter! There's an excerpt in the welcome email, AND a new semi-NSFW scene that will go out to newsletter subscribers on Oct. 24.

 

 

Favorite books from August and September

Only slightly belated, but if anything that's because I read so many good books in these two months!

As always, here are my favorite books that I read in August and September!

Spectred Isle - KJ Charles

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How could I resist a new, 1920s-set paranormal from KJ Charles? I could never. Spectred Isle is the story of Randolph, an arcanist whose family has been destroyed by WWI, and Saul, a former archaeologist who is just trying to get by after destroying his reputation.

This book has basically everything that I look for in a KJ book: cracking dialogue, extremely poignant longing, and a neat little plot that comes together just right.

It's a perfect demonstration of the art of withholding information from the reader until the exact moment they need to know it. Flawless.

 

Everybody Behaves Badly - Leslie M.M. Blume

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The full title of this book is Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway's Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises which like, yes, gets the message across, but at what cost?

This is one of the most addictive historical books I've read. It's basically an account of Hemingway's early life leading through publication of Sun. Including, of course, the trip that he took to Pamplona with a motley crew of so-called friends, who he then completely ripped off for his debut novel.

The writing is absolutely fantastic. I found myself cackling with glee, and forcing everyone around me to listen to excerpts that I read aloud. Blume also gives background on — and is very sympathetic to — the people that Hemingway wrote about in Sun, which was a great choice. I came out of it thinking Hemingway was an absolute dick but also loving him more than ever, so YMMV.

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway

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Hey, guess what, reading a book about the background of The Sun Also Rises made me want to read The Sun Also Rises!

This is the story of an ex-pat war veteran named Jake Barnes, who takes a group of people to the festival of San Fermin in Pamplona. Among the festival-goers is the beautiful, magnetic Lady Brett Ashley. Half the men on the trip are in love with her, and chaos ensues.

This was the first novel Hemingway wrote, and fittingly the first one I ever read. It has some of the most stupid beautiful prose. It's also eminently readable: Hemingway wanted to have it all, and thought that Sun was the perfect middle ground between readers with low vocabulary, readers who wanted sex and gossip, and the literary elite that he was trying to impress with his trademark spare prose.

The book comes with caveats — it's super racist, and Hemingway obviously hurt a lot of real people to write it.

Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s - Frederick Lewis Allen

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If you want to learn about the 1920s in America, this is now the first book I'll recommend. Published in 1931, Only Yesterday goes theme by theme through the 20s, addressing the biggest affects on America's culture: the Red Scare, the rise of the KKK, ballyhoo journalism and syndication, the Religion of Business, Prohibition, the stock market crash, and all the little things that don't make it into less comprehensive books.

It's beautifully, poetically written, and never too academic. This is an accessible history book, and an incredibly important one. It was a joy to read. And in case you're worried about reading a contemporary book, Allen had pretty modern-day sensibilities when it comes to race and women's independence. The section on the KKK (which was wrapped into the Red Scare chapter) was nonetheless super upsetting to read just because of the subject matter.

Allen's voice is dry, funny, and personable. I loved having his take on the '20s, and I'll hold this book close for the rest of my dang life.

Concourse - Santino Hassell

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I'm BACK ON THE SANTINO TRAIN. Concourse picks up with a character you'd recognize from previous Five Boroughs books: Ashton Townsend, the gorgeous former model that everyone underestimates. Ashton's best friend is Valdrin Leka, an amateur boxer.

Val has been trying to keep Ashton at arm's length basically forever, and the sexual tension between them is responsible for taking years off my life. As usual, Concourse is also a sexy read that keeps the plot moving briskly and makes you want things that are going to fall apart in front of you before being put back together again. Hassell is really good at writing contemporary romances that are really hard to put down.

 

A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway

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Yeah, I went there again. A Moveable Feast is Hemingway's own account of his early years in Paris with his first wife, Hadley. I read the restored edition, which there is some controversy about. I'd like to try reading the original as well, but I fear it's always going to be a he-said/he-said situation when it comes to A Moveable Feast.

As it is, Feast sits in a weird ground between fiction and non-fiction. Hemingway says in the closing chapter that it's not meant to be true, but he's still telling stories about real people and using their real names so... come on, dude. From reading genuine non-fiction books about him and his contemporaries, I know that he does straight-up invent or lie about some of the things in this book.

But God, it's still good. No one gets what it feels like to look back on your life and be sad like Hemingway does! He writes beautifully about Hadley and his regrets about how he fucked up their relationship. At least he takes responsibility for that. And it's a great historical perspective on what life was like in Paris at the time.

I had tried to read this book years ago and didn't enjoy it as much. I think I really benefited this time from knowing so much more about Hemingway than I did before. I have a lot of feelings about him, and this book exacerbated all of them.

Favorite books from June and July

It's gonna be a pretty short list this month! I've had a busy time at work and haven't gotten as much reading done as I would like. That being said, I did devour three books by Santino Hassell in about the space of a week, so... well, it's all relative.

An Unnatural Vice

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Boy oh boy, have I been anticipating this book — and yet, it doesn't disappoint. Shitty medium Justin Lazarus gets embroiled in the missing heir plot that began in An Unseen Attraction. He and journalist Nathanial Roy start off as passionate enemies—you know where this is going.

The plotting in this book was extremely tight, and reminded me pleasantly of the intricate criss-crossing from Charles' Society of Gentlemen series. Justin's inclusion in the overarching mystery was seamlessly done, and the trouble that dogs him because of it is delicious and tense. I am a big fan of the main couple as well. Justin and Nathanial clash in all the right ways.

 

Sutphin Boulevard, Sunset Park, First and First

Santino Hassell is one of those authors I've been meaning to read for a long time. You know, when you're sure you're going to like an author's books and all you have to do is take the plunge and get one, and your foul brain is like, "or, you could avoid it for months."

Well, thanks to a Dreamspinner sale I got First and First, the third of Hassell's Five Boroughs series, for 99 cents. No excuses.

These books all center on queer men in contemporary New York City. I love reading about New York from the perspective of a born and bred New Yorker. The details all ring so true.

And Hassell's characters, as well as feeling like real New Yorkers, feel like real people. He writes about complicated issues unflinchingly and strikes right to the heart of all of them. These books deal with addiction, family and romantic relationships all going wrong, financial insecurity, and way more.

I really enjoyed the characters, with all their glorious flaws. Each book introduces characters who will star in another series entry, but none of the connections felt forced. I enjoyed the few cameos that characters make in each others' books.

I'm absolutely going to continue reading the series, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants some intense, well-written, emotionally mature romance, set in the best city in the world.

What's next?

Right now I'm reading Everyone Behaves Badly, a non-fiction book about Hemingway's arrival in Paris and the drama that led to his writing The Sun Also Rises. I'm still working on Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned, and the already fantastic Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue.

Sleep No More and the perfect moment

It's really not often that I let a strange man take my hand and lead me into the dark. Especially not without an introduction. In fact, without even a single word exchanged between us.

Sleep No More changes everything.

It's an interactive, immersive version of Macbeth that plays out over 6 stories of a warehouse in Chelsea. No matter how cool you think that sounds, the reality is cooler. The audience wear masks, and are free to roam at will through the sets—a forest, a speakeasy, a Scottish high street.

The actors, maskless, run amok in this space, doing interpretive dance and occasionally pulling spectators into the scenes. Here's another important rule: as an audience member, you're not allowed to speak.

This results in flocks of  silent, white-masked spectators racing after actors through the dim corridors of the warehouse.

Among other things, being masked completely changes how you interact with people. You don't think about how much energy goes into making proper facial expressions until you no longer have to.

You get to take a break from being a person for awhile.

I didn't realize how freeing this was until I was face-to-face with an actor, and she could emote at me and all I could do was stare at  her, from just a foot away. Reflexively you try to communicate anyway—how do you tell someone you really appreciate their performance with only your eyes?

Back to the man. Back to anonymous intimacy.

I don't date. I don't want to, and I'll get anxious before I get emotionally attached. I'm aromantic—I don't feel romantic attraction, and I don't prioritize romantic relationships. But I get crushes: I've come to know them not as signifiers of romance to come, but as part and parcel of the excitement of meeting someone new and enjoying the freshness of our interactions. Crushes develop into friendship for me.

I love the allure of strangers. I'm a flirt, a terrible flirt, but always on the knife's edge of anxiety that my flirting will be followed up on, and I'll have to let someone down.

Being a (bisexual) woman adds an extra complication. I like men, but flirting with the wrong one can end badly. And I suppose no matter what gender you're attracted to, you don't often get to have intimate, flirtatious contact and then walk away, not without having an awkward conversation at the end of the night.

In a world full of romantics and people wanting more, how often do you get to have a moment? Just one moment, with an understanding of an ending.

Back to the theatre. Back to the dark hallways.

It's difficult to describe how good the Sleep No More actors are at confirming consent. They do it without breaking character, without removing you from the scene, and often without saying a word.

Generally, the actors don't look at you—they have perfected the art of looking through you, as if you're on the other side of an invisible veil. As if you're really the masked ghost that you see in mirrors throughout the space.

A one-on-one begins with eye contact.

Suddenly, a character's eyes will lock with yours. Sometimes it's just that: the look, and they are back in the scene. Sometimes it's more. 

So this character, this actor, looked at me. I had run into him several times over the course of the three-hour show. (It's quite hard to track a single actor through their whole cycle—even if you don't get distracted and wander off, they're likely to lose you in the crowds and the dark.)

But there we were, and I was in the right place at the right time.

It feels special to be seen by an actor at Sleep No More. You feel so God damn special to have been plucked from the faceless crowd and given this gift of intimacy with a perfect stranger.

He took my hand, and held it, both of us silent, me masked. Then we ran. At first a crowd followed us down the stairs, and then we lost them in a still bigger crowd.

He stayed with me until the end of the show, mostly holding my hand, once hugging me as we watched another scene. And at the end of the play he escorted me back to the lobby.

He took off my mask. He said "thank you," and hugged me again. And then he was gone.

Spectators watch a scene at Sleep No More.

Spectators watch a scene at Sleep No More.

How often do you get to have a perfect, intimate experience with a stranger, and feel completely safe? That Sleep No More is a transaction between actor and spectator made it possible for me to enjoy that moment, in all its purity. That's a rare thing.

It's here that I have to praise the actors again, because they do so much emotional and physical work for the benefit of the audience. It looks like the hardest damn job in theatre from the outside. And this happy, joyous, special feeling I got from our encounter—it's lasted for days

Hopefully the actor gathered from my garbled thank yous as we said goodbye that I'm really, really grateful. Shit, I had no idea I even wanted an experience like that, until I got to have it without pressure or fear.

It was honestly like being in a romance novel, only without the falling in love. When else do you get to meet a man and let him take you on a magical adventure within seconds? Without worrying about your safety, or his intentions, or the hard conversations you might need to have?

Sleep No More let me have this snapshot-perfect moment, the kind that a heroine has at the beginning of her story. It made me feel like I was part of something huge, or on the precipice of it. For me, though, I don't need the happily ever after. The beginning is enough.